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The Heart of Mathematics

Author(s): P. R. Halmos
Source: The American Mathematical Monthly, Vol. 87, No. 7 (Aug. - Sep., 1980), pp. 519-524
Published by: Mathematical Association of America
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Introduction. What does mathematics really consistof? Axioms(such as the parallelpos-
tulate)?Theorems(suchas thefundamental theoremof algebra)?Proofs(suchas Godel's proof
of undecidability)?Concepts (such as sets and classes)? Definitions(such as the Menger
definitionof dimension)?Theories(such as categorytheory)?Formulas(such as Cauchy's
integralformula)?Methods(such as themethodof successiveapproximations)?
Mathematicscould surelynot existwithouttheseingredients; theyare all essential.It is
neverthelessa tenablepointof viewthatnone of themis at theheartof the subject,thatthe
mathematician's main reason for existenceis to solve problems,and that,therefore, what
mathematics reallyconsistsof is problemsand solutions.
"Theorem"is a respectedwordin thevocabularyof mostmathematicians, but "problem"is
notalwaysso. "Problems,"as theprofessionals sometimes use theword,are lowlyexercisesthat
are assignedto studentswhowilllaterlearnhowto provetheorems. Theseemotionalovertones
The commutativity of addition for naturalnumbersand the solvabilityof polynomial
equationsoverthecomplexfieldare boththeorems, butone of themis regardedas trivial(near
easy to understand,
thebasic definitions, easy to prove),and theotheras deep (thestatement is
not obvious,the proofcomes via seeminglydistantconcepts,the resulthas manysurprising
applications).To findan unbeatablestrategy and to locate all thezeroesof the
Riemannzeta functionare both problems,but one of themis trivial(anybodywho can
understand thedefinitionscan findtheanswerquickly,withalmostno intellectual effortand no
feelingof accomplishment, and the answerhas no consequencesof interest), and the otheris
deep (no one has foundtheansweralthoughmanyhave soughtit,theknownpartialsolutions
requiregreateffortand providegreatinsight,and an affirmative answerwould implymany
non-trivialcorollaries).Moral: theoremscan be trivialand problemscan be profound.Those
who believethattheheartof mathematics consistsof problemsare not necessarily wrong.
ProblemBooks. If youwantedto makea contribution to mathematics bywritingan articleor
a book on mathematicalproblems,how should you go about it? Should the problemsbe
elementary shouldtheybe at thelevelofundergraduates
(pre-calculus), or graduatestudents, or
should theybe researchproblemsto whichno one knowsthe answer?If the solutionsare
known,shouldyour workcontainthemor not? Should the problemsbe arrangedin some
systematic order(in whichcase theverylocationof theproblemis somehintto itssolution),or
shouldtheybe arrangedin some"random"way?Whatshouldyouexpectthereaderto getfrom
yourwork:fun,techniques, or facts(or someof each)?
All possibleanswersto thesequestionshave alreadybeengiven.Mathematical problemshave
quitean extensive whichis stillgrowing
literature, and flowering.A visitto thepartof thestacks
labeledQA43 (Libraryof Congressclassification) can be an excitingand memorablerevelation,
and thereare richsourcesof problemsscatteredthroughotherpartsof the stackstoo. What
followsis a quick reviewof some not quite randomlyselectedbut probablytypicalproblem
collectionsthatevena casual librarysearchcould uncover.
The authorreceivedhis Ph.D. fromthe Universityof Illinois; he has held positionsat (consecutively)Illinois,
Syracuse,Chicago, Michigan,Hawaii, Indiana, Santa Barbara, and Indiana, withvisitingpositionsfor various
periods at the Institutefor Advanced Study,Montevideo,Miami, Harvard, Tulane, Universityof Washington
(Seattle),Berkeley,Edinburgh,and Perth.He has publishedeightor morebooks and manyarticles;he has held a
GuggenheimFellowshipand is a memberof the Royal Society of Edinburghand the HungarianAcademy of
Sciences.The MAA has givenhim a ChauvenetPrize and two Ford awards. He has been active in the affairsof
both the AMS and the MAA, and will become editorof thisMoNrHLY on Jan. 1, 1982.
His mathematicalinterestsare in measureand ergodictheory,algebraiclogic,and operatorson Hilbertspace,
withexcursionsto probability,statistics,topologicalgroups,and Boolean algebras.-Editors

520 P. R. HALMOS [Aug.-Sept.

Hilbert'sProblems.The mostriskyand possiblyleastrewarding kindof problemcollection

to offerto themathematical publicis theone thatconsistsofresearchproblems.Your problems
could becomesolvedin a fewweeks,or months,or years,and yourworkwould,therefore, be
out of date muchmorequicklythanmostmathematical exposition.If you are notof thestature
of Hilbert,you can neverbe surethatyourproblemswon'tturnout to be trivial,or impossible,
or,perhapsworseyet,just orthogonalto thetruththatwe all seek-wronglyphrased,leading
nowhere,and havingno lastingvalue.
A listof researchproblemsthathas had a greateffecton themathematical researchof the
twentieth centurywas offeredby Hilbertin the last year of the nineteenth centuryat the
International Congressof Mathematicians in Paris[3]. The firstof Hilbert's23 problemsis the
continuumhypothesis: is everyuncountablesubsetof theset R of real numbersin one-to-one
correspondence with R? Even in 1900 the questionwas no longernew, and althoughgreat
progresshas been made sincethenand somethinkthattheproblemis solved,thereare others
who feelthatthefactsare farfromfullyknownyet.
Hilbert'sproblemsare of varyingdepthsand touchmanypartsof mathematics. Some are
geometric (iftwotetrahedra have thesamevolume,can theyalwaysbe partitioned intothesame
finitenumberof smallertetrahedra so thatcorresponding piecesare congruent?-theansweris
no), and someare number-theoretic (is 2'2 transcendental?-the answeris yes). Severalof the
problemsare stillunsolved.Much oftheinformation accumulatedup to 1974was broughtup to
date and collectedin one volumein 1976[5],but themathematical community's did
not stop there-a considerablenumberof both expository and substantive contributionshas
been made sincethen.
P6lya-Szego.Perhapsthe mostfamousand stillrichestproblembook is thatof Polya and
Szego [6],whichfirstappearedin 1925and was republished (in Englishtranslation) in 1972and
1976.In itsoverhalfa century of vigorouslife(so far)it has been themainstayof uncountably
manyseminars, a standardreference book,and an almostinexhaustible sourceof examination
questionsthatare bothinspiringand doable. Its levelstretchesfromhighschoolto thefrontiers
of research.The firstproblemasks about thenumberof waysto makechangefora dollar,the
denominations of theavailablecoinsbeing1,5, 10,25, and 50,of course;in theoriginaledition
thequestionwas about Swissfrancs,and thedenominations were 1, 2, 5, 10,20, and 50. From
thisinnocentbeginning theproblemsproceed,in gentlebutchallenging steps,to theHadamard
threecirclestheorem,Tchebychevpolynomials, latticepoints,determinants, and Eisenstein's
Dormre. "The triumph of mathematics" is theoriginaltitle(in German)of Dorrie'sbook [1].
This is a book thatdeservesto be muchbetterknownthanit seemsto be. It is eclectic,it is
spread over 2000 years of history,and it rangesin difficulty fromelementary arithmetic to
materialthatis frequently thesubjectof graduatecourses.
It contains,forinstance,thefollowing curiosityattributedto Newton(Arithmetica Universa-
lis, 1707).If "a cowsgrazeb fieldsbarein c days,a' cowsgrazeb' fieldsbarein c' days,a" cows
grazeb" fieldsbare in c" days,whatrelationexistsbetweentheninemagnitudes a to c"? It is
assumedthatall fieldsprovidethe same amountof grass,thatthe dailygrowthof the fields
remainsconstant,and thatall thecows eat thesame amounteach day." Answer:

( b bc ac
det b' b'c' a'c' = 0.
\b" b"c" a"c"

This is Problem3, out of a hundred.

The problemslean moretowardgeometry else,buttheyincludealso Catalan's
question about the numberof ways of forminga productof n prescribedfactorsin a
systemthatis totallynon-commutative
multiplicative ("how manydifferent
and non-associative

ways can a productof n different factorsbe calculatedby pairs?,"Problem7), and the

Fermat-Gaussimpossibility theorem("the sum of two cubic numberscannot be a cubic
number," Problem 21).
Two moreexamplesshouldgivea fairidea of theflavorof thecollectionas a whole:"every
quadrilateralcan be consideredas a perspectiveimageof a square"(Problem72), and "at what
pointof theearth'ssurfacedoes a perpendicularly suspendedrod appearthelongest?"(Problem
94). The styleand theattitudeare old-fashioned,but manyof theproblemsare of theeternally
interestingkind;thisis an excellentbook to browsein.

Steinhaus.My next mini-review is of a Polish contribution, Steinhaus[71, which (like

Dorrie's) has exactly100 problems,and theyare genuinelyelementary and good solid fun.
Whensomeonesays"problembook" mostpeoplethinkof something likethisone,and,indeed,
it is an outstanding exemplarof thespecies.The problemsare,however,notequallyinteresting
or equallydifficult. Theyillustrate, moreover, anotheraspectof problemsolving:itis sometimes
almostimpossibleto guesshowdifficult a problemis,or,forthatmatter, howinteresting itis,till
afterthesolutionis known.
Considerthreeexamples.(1) Does thereexista sequence{x1,x2,...,x10}of tennumberssuch
that(a) xl is containedin theclosedinterval[0,1],(b) xl and X2are containedin different halves
of [0,1],(c) each of X1,X2, and X3is contained in a different thirdof the interval, and so on up
through (2)
x1,x2,...,x10? If 3000 points in theplane are such thatno three lie on a straightline,
do thereexist1000triangles (meaninginterior and boundary)withthesepointsas verticessuch
thatno twoof thetriangles have anypointsin common?(3) Does thereexista discin theplane
(meaninginterior and boundaryofa circle)thatcontainsexactly71 latticepoints(pointsbothof
whosecoordinatesare integers)?
Of coursejudgmentsof difficulty and interests are subjective,so all I can do is recordmy
own evaluations.(1) is difficult and uninteresting, (2) is astonishingly easy -andmildlyinterest-
ing,and (3) is a littleharder thanit looks and even prima facie quiteinteresting. In defenseof
theseopinions,I mentionone criterionthatI used: if the numbers(10,1000,71)cannotbe
replaced by arbitrarypositiveintegers,I am inclinedto conclude that the corresponding
problemis specialenoughto be dull. It turnsout thattheanswerto (1) is yes,and Steinhaus
provesit by exhibiting a solution(quiteconcretely: x, =.95, x2=.05, x3=.34, x4=.74, etc.). He
proves(the same way) that the answeris yes for 14 insteadof 10, and, by threepages of
unpleasantlookingcalculation,thatthe answeris no for75. He mentionsthat,in fact,the
answeris yesfor17 and no foreveryintegergreaterthan17.I say that'sdull.For (2) and (3) the
answersare yes(forall n in place of 1000,or in place of 71).

Glazman-Ljubic. The book of Glazmanand Ljubic[2]is an unusualone (I don'tknowofany

othersof its kind),and, despitesome faults,it is a beautifuland excitingcontribution to the
problemliterature. a newkindof textbookof (finite-dimensional)
The book is, in effect, linear
algebraand linearanalysis.It beginswiththe definitions of (complex)vectorspaces and the
conceptsof lineardependenceand indepedence;thefirstproblemin thebook is to provethata
set consistingof just one vectorx is linearlyindependent if and only if x #0. The chapters
followone anotherin logicaldependence, just as theydo in textbooksof theconventional kind:
Linearoperators, Bilinearfunctionals,Normedspaces,etc.
The book is not expository prose,however;perhapsit could be called expository poetry.It
givesdefinitions and relatedexplanatory backgroundmaterialwithsome care. The mainbody
of thebook consistsof problems;theyare all formulated and theproblemis to
as assertions,
provethem.The proofsare notin thebook. Thereare references, but thereaderis toldthathe
willnotneed to consultthem.
The reallynewidea in thebook is itssharpfocus:thisis reallya book on functional analysis,
writtenfor an audience who is initiallynot even assumedto know what a matrixis. The
ingeniousidea of theauthorsis to presentto a beginning studenttheeasycase, thetransparent
522 P. R. HALMOS [Aug.-Sept.

case, the motivatingcase, thefinite-dimensional

case, thepurelyalgebraiccase of some of the
deepestanalyticfactsthatfunctional analystshave discovered.The subjectsdiscussedinclude
spectraltheory,the Toeplitz-Hausdorff theorem, the Hahn-Banachtheorem, partiallyordered
vectorspaces,momentproblems,dissipativeoperators, and manyothersuchanalyticsounding
results.A beautiful
coursecould be givenfromthisbook (I wouldloveto giveit),and a student
broughtup in sucha coursecould becomean infantprodigyfunctional analystin no time.
(A regrettable
featureof thebook, at leastin its Englishversion,is thewillfullyunorthodox
terminology. Example: the (canonical)projectionfroma vectorspace to a quotientspace is
called a "contraction",and what most people call a contractionis called a "compression".
Fortunately theconceptwhosestandardtechnicalnameis compression is notdiscussed.)
Klambauer.The last additionto theproblemliterature to be reviewedhereis Klambauer's
[4]. Its subjectis real analysis,and, althoughit does have someelementary problems, itslevelis
relatively advanced.It is an excellentand excitingbook. It does have some faults,of course,
includingsome misprints and some pointlessrepetitions, and the absence of an index is an
exasperating featurethatmakesthebook muchharderto use thanit oughtto be. It is,however,
a greatsourceof stimulating questions,of well knownand not so well knownexamplesand
counterexamples, and of standardand notso standardproofs.It shouldbe on thebookshelfof
everyproblemlover,of everyteacherof analysis(fromcalculuson up), and,forthatmatter, of
everyseriousstudentof thesubject.
The table of contentsrevealsthatthebook is dividedinto fourchapters:Arithmetic and
combinatorics, Inequalities,Sequencesand series,and Real functions. Here are someexamples
fromeach thatshould serveto illustratethe rangeof the work,perhapsto communicate its
flavor,and, I hope,stimulate theappetiteformore.
The combinatorics chapterasks for a proofof the "rule forcastingout nines" (is that
expressionfortestingthe divisibility of an integerby 9 via the sum of its decimaldigitstoo
old-fashioned to be recognized?), it asks how manyzeroesthereare at theend of thedecimal
expansionof 1000!,and it asksforthecoefficient ofxk in (1 +x+x2+ **_*+ Xn-)2. Alongwith
suchproblemsthereare also unmotivated formulasthatprobablyonlytheirfathercould love,
and thereare a fewcuriosities (such as theproblemthatsuggeststhe use of thewell ordering
principleto provetheirrationality of V ). A simplebutstriking oddityis thisstatement:ifm
and n are distinct positiveintegers, then
mn' nmn.
The chapteron inequalitiescontainsmanyof thefamousones (Holder,Minkowski, Jensen),
and manyothersthatare analytically valuablebut somewhatmorespecializedand therefore
somewhatlessfamous.A curiosity theanswerto whichveryfewpeopleare likelyto guessis this
one: foreach positiveintegern, whichis bigger

Vr f or Vin+ n?
The chapteron sequenceshas theonlydetailedand completediscussionthatI haveeverseen
of the fascinating(and non-trivial)
problemabout the convergencecsfthe infiniteprocess
indicatedby thesymbol


Studentsmightbe interested to learnthattheresultis due to Euler;thereferencegivenis to the

articleDe formulisexponentialibus replicatis,Acta Academica ScientiarumImperialisPetro-
politanae,1777.One moreteaser:whatis theclosureof theset of all real numbersof theform
/n- Vm (wheren and m are positiveintegers)?
The chapteron real functions is richtoo. It includesthetranscendentality
of e, someof the
basic properties
of theCantorset,Lebesgue'sexampleof a continuousbutnowheredifferentia-
ble function,
and F. Riesz'sproof(via the"risingsunlemma")thateverycontinuousmonotone

functionis differentiable There is a discussionof thatvestigialcuriosity
called Osgood's theorem,whichis theLebesgueboundedconvergence theoremforcontinuous
functionson a closed boundedinterval.The Weierstrasspolynomialapproximation theoremis
brokendown intobite-sizelemmas),and so is one of Gauss's proofsof the
fundamental theoremofalgebra.For a finalexampleI mentiona questionthatshouldbe asked
muchmoreoftenthatit probablyis: is therean exampleof a seriesof functions,
a closed bounded interval,that convergesabsolutelyand uniformly, but for which the

ProblemCourses.How can we, the teachersof today,use the problemliterature? Our

assignedtaskis to pass on thetorchof mathematical knowledgeto the technicians, engineers,
scientists, teachers,and, not least,researchmathematicians of tomorrow:do prob-
Yes, theydo. The major part of everymeaningfullife is the solutionof problems;a
considerablepartof theprofessional engineers,
lifeof technicians, scientists,etc.,is thesolution
of mathematical problems.It is the dutyof all teachers,and of teachersof mathematics in
particular,to exposetheirstudentsto problemsmuchmorethanto facts.It is, perhaps,more
satisfyingto strideintoa classroomand givea polishedlectureon theWeierstrass M-testthanto
conducta fumble-and-blunder sessionthatendsin thequestion:"Is theboundednessassump-
tionof thetestnecessaryforits conclusion?"I maintain,however,thatsuch a fumblesession,
intendedto motivatethestudentto searchfora counterexample, is infinitelymorevaluable.
I have taughtcourseswhose entirecontentwas problemssolved by students (and then
presentedto theclass). The number of theorems thatthestudentsin such a course were exposed
to was approximately half the numberthattheycould have been exposed to in a seriesof
lectures.In a problemcourse,however,exposuremeanstheacquiringof an intelligent question-
ing attitudeand of some techniqueforpluggingtheleaks thatproofsare likelyto spring;in a
lecturecourse,exposuresometimes meansnotmuchmorethanlearningthenameof a theorem,
beingintimidated by itscomplicatedproof,and worrying aboutwhether it wouldappearon the

CoveringMaterial.Many teachersare concernedabout the amountof materialtheymust

cover in a course.One cynic suggesteda formula:since,he said, studentson the average
remember onlyabout 40% of whatyou tellthem,the thingto do is to cramintoeach course
250%of whatyou hope willstick.Glib as thatis, it probablywouldnotwork.
Problemcoursesdo work.Studentswho have takenmyproblemcourseswereoftencompli-
mentedby theirsubsequentteachers.The compliments were on theiralertattitude,on their
abilityto get to the heartof the matterquickly,and on theirintelligently searchingquestions
thatshowedthattheyunderstood whatwas happeningin class.All thishappenedon morethan
one level,in calculus,in linearalgebra,in set theory,and, of course,in graduatecourseson
measuretheoryand functional analysis.
Whymustwe covereverything thatwe hope studentswillultimately learn?Even if (to stay
with an example already mentioned)we thinkthat the WeierstrassM-test is supremely
important, and thateverymathematics studentmustknowthatit existsand mustunderstand
how to applyit-even thena courseon thepertinent branchof analysismightbe betterfor
omitting it.Supposethatthereare 40 suchimportant topicsthata studentmustbe exposedto in
a term.Does itfollowthatwe mustgive40 completelecturesand hope thattheywillall sinkin?
Mightit not be betterto give 20 of the topicsjust a ten-minute mention(the name, the
statement, in whichit can be applied),and to treatthe
and an indicationof one of thedirections
other 20 in depth,by student-solved problems,student-constructed counterexamples, and
student-discovered applications?I firmlybelieve that the lattermethodteaches more and
teachesbetter.Some of thematerialdoesn'tgetcoveredbuta lot of it getsdiscovered (a telling
524 P. R. HALMOS

old pun that deservesto be kept alive), and the methodtherebyopens doors whose very
existencemightneverhavebeen suspectedbehinda solidlybuiltstructure ofsettledfacts.As for
theWeierstrass M-test,or whatever in class-well, booksandjournals
else was givenshortshrift
do exist,and studentshave been knownto read themin a pinch.

ProblemSeminars.Whilea problemcoursemightbe devotedto a sharplyfocusedsubject,it

also mightnot-it mightjust be devotedto fostering the questioningattitudeand improving
techniqueby discussingproblemswidelyscatteredoverseveralfields.Such techniquecourses,
sometimes called ProblemSeminars,can existat all levels(forbeginners, forPh.D. candidates,
or foranyintermediate group).
The bestwayto conducta problemseminaris,of course,to presentproblems, butit isjust as
bad foran omniscient teacherto do all theaskingin a problemseminaras itis foran omniscient
teacherto do all thetalkingin a lecturecourse.I strongly recommend thatstudents in a problem
seminarbe encouragedto discoverproblemson theirown(at firstperhapsby slightly modifying
problemsthattheyhave learnedfromothers),and thattheyshouldbe givenpublicpraise(and
gradecredit)forsuchdiscoveries. Justas you shouldnottellyourstudentsall theanswers,you
shouldalso notask themall thequestions.One of thehardestpartsof problemsolvingis to ask
the rightquestion,and the only way to learnto do so is to practice.On the researchlevel,
especially,ifI pose a definitethesisproblemto a candidate,I am notdoingmyjob of teaching
himto do research.How willhe findhis nextproblem,whenI am no longersupervising him?
Thereis no easyway to teachsomeoneto ask good questions, just as thereis no easywayto
teachsomeoneto swimor to playthecello,butthat'sno excuseto giveup. You cannotswimfor
someoneelse; thebestyou can do is to supervisewithsympathy and reinforce therightkindof
fumbleby approval.You can give advicethatsometimes helpsto makegood questionsout of
bad ones,butthereis no substitute forrepeatedtrialand practice.
An obvioussuggestion is: generalize;a slightlyless obviousone is: specialize;a moderately
sophisticated one is: look for a non-trivial specializationof a generalization. Anotherwell-
knownpieceofadviceis due to Polya: makeit easier.(P6lya'sdictumdeservesto be propagated
overand overagain.In slightly greaterdetailit says:ifyoucannotsolvea problem,thenthereis
an easierproblemthatyoucannotsolve,and yourfirst job is to findit!) The adviceI am fondest
of is: makeit sharp.By thatI mean: do not insistimmediately on askingthenaturalquestion
("what is .. .?", "when is ... ?", "how much is ... ?"), but focus firston an easy (but nontrivial)
yes-or-noquestion ("is it ... ?").

Epilogue.I do believe that problemsare the heartof mathematics, and I hope that as
in theclassroom,in seminars,
teachers, and in thebooksand articleswe write,we willemphasize
themmore and more,and thatwe will trainour studentsto be betterproblem-posers and
problem-solversthanwe are.

1. H. Dorrie,100GreatProblemsofElementary Mathematics,Dover,NewYork,1965.
2. I. M. Glazmanand Ju. I. Ljubic,Finite-DimensionalLinearAnalysis:A Systematic Presentation
ProblemForm,MIT, Cambridge, 1974.
3. D. Hilbert,
problems,Bull.Amer.Math.Soc.,8 (1902)437-479.
4. G. Klambauer,Problems in Analysis,
and Propositions Dekker, NewYork,1979.
5. MathematicalDevelopmentsArisingfromHilbertProblems,AMS, Providence,1976.
6. G. PolyaandG. Szego,Problemsand.Theorems inAnalysis, Berlin,1972,1976.
7. H. Steinhaus,
One HundredProblems in Elementary